By: Jeffrey Kwabena Yeboah

The Community Engagement Exchange Program (CEE) is an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) that focuses on developing a global network of emerging civil society leaders who work on community development projects in their home country. According to IREX, “The CEE Program chooses 130 fellows from over one hundred countries for their dedication to improving their community, experience working in civil society programming, and commitment to solving societal problems.” MEANS Database is proud to host 2 fellows from the CEE program who have diverse experiences in waste management and recycling. Through this cross-cultural exchange of knowledge and experiences, MEANS has been able to learn from our fellows and vice-versa.

In 2014, I used to support myself in school by hustling here and there. I was thinking so much of what to do in school to make ends meet. I was allocated a room in commonwealth hall, the only prestigious all-male hall in University of Ghana, Legon. H28 was the room number and it was a mess. A friend advised me to make it “my room” and that statement sunk in deeply. I decorated the place and anyone who came to see it later offered to pay me to decorate their rooms. Over time, my work grew out of campus. I learnt on the job everyday and I realized I had a lot of in-depth passion for it. One day, on a hunt for a center table with a client, we came across a heap of waste car tires blazing with fire. Apparently, the vulcanizers had set fire to them to discard. The smoke churning out of the heap of flames had clouded the area, causing people to flee from the scene, coughing. I saw a woman carrying a child and her eyes were cherry red because of the smoke.

The uncomfortable scene that never seems to leave my memory was a very sad one. I told the client that it would be great for us to find use for the car tires other than burning them and that gave birth to a whole business idea. He gave me the challenge of making a table out of the tires in a week and if it was nice, he would purchase it. I took the challenge and succeeded in making the furniture out of waste car tires and he honored his promise. I used that money to make more and as part of my interior decor work, I made sure to add the small tables from the tires as freebies while preaching the narrative of not burning waste. I researched a lot on the menace of waste burning and it consumed my time for years all while I was simultaneously focusing on my interior decor works and schooling. Since then, I have been looking forward to different ways of sharpening my knowledge and experience on problem identification and solving with relation to automobile waste upcycling and Interior decor. I have enrolled in different engagement programmes in Ghana, Burkina Faso and The United Arab Emirates.

Fast forward to 2018, I scaled up my business. I have since started full interior designing and decor for homes and offices in Ghana. In addition to the service aspect of the business, I make interior and exterior decor products from automobile waste resources. Again, I have formed a team from some Universities in Accra, Ghana, namely University of Ghana, Central University, Ashesi University, University of Professional Studies, and Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration. Our goal is to educate people on the importance of changing the narrative of waste to waste resource and also in the near future organize training for the youth. All of these great ideas and more need training. I felt in my heart that there is definitely an opportunity out there for me to enhance my knowledge, create an impactful network and fuel my passion.

In 2020, one evening, a friend in the fight against Climate Change sent me a link to the Community Engagement Exchange Program. Excited as I was, I did my research on the program and realized it could be very helpful. I had no time to inform my team about the program because I had only about three hours until the application was closed. I applied for the program and informed my core team the next day. In a few months, I got an email from CEE that I have been selected among 130 participants out of over 4,400 candidates. The feeling was overwhelming in summary. 

There are a lot of Exchange Programmes organized by IREX and Community Engagement Exchange (CEE) is one of them. The maiden event aims at equipping its first cohort of 130 young people from over 100 countries with the necessary skills,resources,expertise and abundant resources to combat 21st century global issues. The program brings together civil society leaders ages 21-28 who are passionate about solving problems in their communities in any of these four listed thematic areas, Youth Engagement, Women and Gender Issues, Resilience and Sustainable Development, Open and Participatory Government, and Civic Dialogue and Peace Building. This resourceful program aimed at providing skills to young fellows across the world is sponsored by the US Department of State.

After satisfying all the requirements which included English Proficiency Examinations and other exciting modules, the program was postponed three times because of COVID-19. We remained resilient and that process taught all of us a great lesson. It made us appreciate the waiting period in life. It made us , in this case – me, appreciate the fact that there are no accidents in life. A lot of great things happened during this period. I was able to take a contract in Accra, Ghana under the name of my company. I designed and decorated an office space in Accra within a month. I built my first set of furniture and I realized how ready I was for the world. I landed another contract for a two storey building house in Accra which needed a full interior design and decor services. I told the client about my traveling and he decided to wait for me so I will return in December after my practicum to complete it. They say good things happen to those who wait and CEE made that statement a reality for all of us, or most of us, depending on how you view the world. 

I was very excited on the night of 4th february as I got on the nonstop flight to Washington Dulles, USA. I arrived at the airport at 6:20am and met other fellows who were also connecting flights to Detroit Metro. Our flight got delayed for about 3 hours. It was still sunny after 6pm when the bus got us to Downtown Detroit. We were comforted by the beautiful hotel after the long hours of waiting for the local flight at Dulles Airport to Michigan. We joined the already existing queue to quickly take our Covid test. The swift process only took about 15 minutes. We then moved to our room to collect our neatly arranged souvenirs and took the keys from the Reception area to our allocated rooms. The view from my room was a sight to behold. I could see taller buildings and I took time to inhale the moment! From across the hotel, I could see Canada. That’s the first time I could see a country’s ending point and the beginning of another country. We had dinner, met new friends and enjoyed the new view. We were at least out of our scope to a new one.It was a beautiful moment seeing different cultures, different smiles, different people, all grouped together in one space at the same time. That very moment I realized the very importance of CEE was networking.

The next day was the game changer for me and I think most of us. There was a session about our Personal Code of Conduct and values. We were made to clarify the principles that we would like to include in our personal code of conduct and what our top values will be as leaders. This exercise revealed the hidden virtues, values and beliefs I had in my subconscious. I chose, in order of Priority, Spirituality, Integrity, Ethics, Environment and Creativity as my top counted Values. These are values I have within me for decades but I have never paid attention to any of them that much, in detail. The session allowed me to meditate on them and prepare my mind for challenges. The session made me yearn for difficult challenges just so I will be able to use my first five codes to solve them easily and happily. I sum all the codes into one mantra I have been using for sometime now-THERE ARE NO ACCIDENTS. We learn from every challenge and it’s up to us as humans to learn joyfully or painfully. I choose joyfully every time.

Then came the day for our “Detroit in Context Tour”. We toured the city with a well informed guide who opened up Detroit for us historically. It was a beautiful experience because of my passion for creativity, architecture and design. I later got the opportunity to have an eye-opening conversation with my mentor Stephen Lavalah from Liberia and CEE specialist, Chibuzor Charles Agomuoh from Nigeria. These two gentlemen shared with me some advice and directions and it influenced me a lot. They did it voluntarily. I took advantage of the orientation process which was full of many resources and guidelines to a much better person. It enhanced my way of thinking, appreciating the gift of today by learning from the events of yesterday and being hopeful for a better tomorrow for myself and my community.

We left Detroit Michigan for our respective states to begin our Practicum journey. I was paired with MEANS Database in Washington DC. I asked myself a lot of questions- why was I assigned to an organization that is into food recovery while my passion is interior designing and creativity through upcycling of automobile waste resources? Then I got to understand that it is still aligned with my passion. This is because MEANS Database is also passionate about recovering food resources in a creative and efficient way. They are changing the waste narrative just as I am doing in my small impactful corner back home, in Ghana. The beautiful hearts of MEANS Database in no order, Allie, Oliver, Kenna, Sammie, Suzy, Naomi, Ellen and my CEE colleague Sepa have made working experience rather fun for me. I enjoy how we work with beaming smiles. I have since been working with the NGO and it has been very exciting. I am being challenged to work outside my comfort zone and try new ways of getting results. This writeup is even one of the many things because I prefer telling stories by speaking other than writing.

The CEE program has been very phenomenal in shaping my mind and given me a broader perspective of the world. It has made me appreciate my core values in a broader scope and made me love my country more. I have learnt a lot of things so far and I cannot wait to go back home. I cannot wait to be the change I have longed to see in the world, precisely in my community in Ghana. I cannot wait to impact my community by being an example of possibility.